Another Hundred People - An Ode to the Ensemble
OnStage Australia Columnist
Last November, I did something I’ve never done before. I visited the United States of America. But where, I hear you ask, did I visit? Well, I give you a hint. It’s well known for its bagels and yellow cabs, it’s ridiculously noisy and its got – oh, at least one or two theatres. Maybe closer to 40. In one precinct.
I’m talking, of course, about New York. I’ve always wanted to visit, and I’m so grateful that I finally had the opportunity to immerse myself in American culture. But while I had many exciting experiences overseas, my job is to write about theatre – and boy, did I see a lot of it.
New York is the central theatre hub of the United States. Not only is it home to Broadway, but also to a number of amateur, playhouse or art-house theatres. During my visit, I was fortunate enough to see several shows, but there is one particular experience that I want to share with you.
I couldn’t leave New York without seeing at least one musical, so on my last night I took myself off to see ‘Something Rotten,’ which has recently closed after playing 742 performances. Whilst I could dedicate an entire article to the quality of this show alone, there is one aspect of it that I would like to place particular emphasis on.
As any fan of theatre will know, it takes an army to put on a show. ‘Something Rotten’ has ten ‘main’ cast members; think of these as the members of the cast who play lead roles in the show. But aside from these ten cast members, there’s a chorus of at least twenty ensemble players, the majority of whom play multiple roles in the show, from pilgrims to poets to omelettes.
I’ll be honest, when the show first started, I was too caught up in the excitement of seeing the lead performers to really pay much attention to the ensemble (I mean, come on, Adam Pascal was playing Shakespeare!). But then Rob McClure started singing ‘God I Hate Shakespeare,’ and my focus started shifting. I started taking notice of the ensemble members – in particular, how they were reacting to McClure’s performance – and for the first time, I was struck with a revelation.
‘Holy cow’ I muttered, ‘these guys have the hardest job in the show.’
Audiences are quick to dismiss ensembles. Most of the time we don’t do it purposefully. We know that everyone on stage works hard and gives it their all. But we are quick to disregard ensemble members as just that – ensembles. We don’t pay attention to their faces, we don’t remember their names. They are simply there to fill up the stage and make the main actors look good. They are anonymous, unacknowledged, just another hundred faces we wouldn’t pick out from a crowd.
I kept an eye on the ensemble for the rest of the first act. The first actor who caught my eye was a moustachioed player wearing a pair of glasses. I could help but watch him because, my god, this guy was really getting into it! His reactions were spot on, his dancing was impeccable, and he was clearly putting effort into his performance. As the show progressed, I started watching other members of the ensemble. Men and women who – though they were not the main focus of the show – were working hard and putting in their best effort. It didn’t matter to them if no one spared them a glance. They were clearly enjoying themselves irregardless.
When the show reached the interval, I picked up my Playbill and flicked through to ‘Who’s Who’ page. Flipping through the cast list, I started putting names to faces. Stacey Todd Holt was the chap with the glasses who was so much fun to watch. Beth Johnson Nicely caught my attention with some impeccable dancing in ‘A Musical.’ Aaron Kaburick wowed as a cross-dressing actor in Nick Bottom’s troupe. One by one I matched names with faces, and as I went I thought about how much effort each of these ensemble members put into their performances.
These actors are not big names, but they deserve the same acknowledgement as the main cast. Performers are only as good as their weakest link, and a show’s quality can drop when even one actor doesn’t care about his presentation. Broadway ensembles have one of the hardest tasks of any onstage performer – they have to make everything and everyone look good. They always have to smile. Their kicks have to be high, their turns on point, their jazz hands impeccable. They cannot be sloppy, because if they start losing energy, whether consciously or subconsciously, we notice. They have to be turned on from the moment the curtain comes up. They have to act like they care about what’s going on, even if everyone’s attention is turned elsewhere. The cast of ‘Something Rotten’ all worked together to put on a spectacular show, and the result was that the audience who surrounded me walked out raving about the quality of the performance. I got chatting to an older woman who was sitting near me, and she told me that she’d been ‘reluctantly dragged [here] against her will.’ But, as soon as the lights had dimmed and the first song started, she confessed that she had felt invigorated and energized by the cast because – in her words – ‘they look like they were having a lot of fun!’
I would like to set a task for anyone reading this article. The next time you visit the theatre – be it a play, an opera or, indeed, a musical – I want you to try and divide your attention equally between the ‘main’ cast and the ‘ensemble’ cast. It’s not always easy, but believe me, it is worth it. I can guarantee that you will see some impeccable performances from some truly hardworking people. It is immensely rewarding for both sides; actors will appreciate your recognition of their hard work, and you will get to see some insanely talented people bounce around the stage with unrivaled enthusiasm.
Ensemble members deserve the same respect and recognition as ‘main’ cast members – they do the same work, they rehearse the same hours, and they are always right there, on call, when they are needed. Seeing ‘Something Rotten’ has inspired me to make an effort learn about members of the ensembles of future productions that I see, because it’s vital that we appreciate the hard work and effort of ‘another hundred people’ who help bring shows to life.
If you’d like to purchase tickets for ‘Something Rotten!’ on tour, click here!